We had the serendipitous combination of a friend’s wedding in Hilton Head, South Carolina and a business trip to Charleston last week which we combined for a very long weekend trip to warmer climes. I hadn’t been to Charleston in such a long time, and having read so much over the last few years about the tremendous resurgence of its food culture, with chefs, food writers, and restaurants getting awards and rave reviews, I was really excited to visit again.
After a beautiful beach wedding weekend, time with my family (especially my fabulous 1-year-old niece!!!) we drove Hwy 17 through the Low country from Hilton Head to Charleston. I think I’ve mentioned before, there are few things as compelling to me as a hand painted roadside sign advertising “Boiled P-nuts” and after a crushing disappointment on the way from the airport (“Closed”) at the roadside stand we passed, salty peanut satisfaction was finally mine! A plastic baggy full of hot drippy boiled peanuts is the ultimate road trip food (possibly only improved upon by the addition of a bag of chicharrone).
After checking in at The Indigo Inn we went for a walk through the historic downtown to the waterfront. The weather in late April was cool enough to be pleasant and warm enough for the fragrance of the jasmine and tea olives to perfume the air. I prefer a sort of “self-guided” approach to wandering through historic districts and Charleston lends itself to the leisurely amble, but there are lots of tours available. The economy of the area is very tourist driven, but unless you are in the old market area, you don’t feel crowded and jostled.
With this trip being last-minute, I wasn’t able to get a reservation at Husk, one of the better known newer restaurants in the area but our hotel told us that the restaurant’s porch was first come so we went and got a locally brewed beer at the bar and waited for a porch table. We went with the local Westbrook White Thai witbier with our Kentuckyaki pig ear lettuce wrap, fried chicken skin with pimento cheese and pickled green tomato, and cornmeal dusted catfish with tiny brussel sprouts and tomato gravy. My favorite was the lettuce wrap, S’s was the catfish.
Coffee break : City Lights Coffee 141 Market St, Charleston, SC 29401
On my own the next day, I wanted to go back to Hominy Grill for their lunch specials. Besides being a very comfortable, quiet, pretty hotel, The Indigo Inn is the kind of place that when the front desk couldn’t get a cab to the restaurant for me within about 5 minutes of my request, one of them offered to drive me to the restaurant and gave me a guided tour of the area on the way.
I got the 4 Vegetables and cornbread lunch plate, an amuse bouche of boiled peanuts and the restaurant’s cookbook.
Walking back to the hotel, I walked through the Westside, Cannonborough, and Radcliffborough neighborhoods which provides and much more diverse and varied perspective of the city after the grandeur of the historic downtown. Students and professionals are eating and drinking coffee in the restaurants and cafes, a little trendier and hipper than the statelier downtown. It was a nice walk in cool weather but if you visit when it’s hot, cabs are flat rate $6 on the peninsula and restaurants and hotels will happily call a car for you.
Coffee break: Coffee: Black Tap Coffee
Back in the French Quarter that afternoon were two of my favorite spots on the trip: Goat. Sheep. Cow. a gem of an artisan cheese, wine, charcuterie shop with local baguettes, goat milk caramels and chocolates. Its owners Trudi and Patty love Charleston and are happy to talk cheese, restaurants, food, bakeries. This cheesemonger spent a very happy hour or so there, talking shop and getting the local lowdown and where to eat and drink. It’s the perfect place to put together a picnic to enjoy in one of the waterfront parks.
They told me about the very newly opened Craftsmen Kitchen & Tap House, and since it was close by and raining, we ducked in for some local craft beer and very well made bar meal: catfish fingers and chips and a really great burger.
The next day, I headed back north to the Cannonborough to a filling station converted into Xiao Bao Biscuit, an Asian restaurant with a local vibe.
I had the Som Tum with chicken, a black bean paste encrusted chicken with rice and spicy papaya salad and a Howling Wolf Hefeweizen
Coffee break: Kudu Coffee and Craft Beer
Another little gem in the French Quarter was Charleston Beer Exchange, one of the best little beer shops I’ve ever visited, educated and happy to share their love for great craft beer with customers. They are friends with the ladies at goat. sheep.cow and do beer and cheese events with them as well. I talked to Brandon, their Cicerone certified manager about the little beer department I’m trying to build here and he gave me some good beer and cheese pairing ideas.
For our last night, we drove out to Bowens Island Restaurant, a fish camp on the tip of Bowens Island overlooking the beautiful low country marshes.
It’s basically a big screened porch on stilts that serves big plastic trays of oysters with a knife and a towel (shuck your own!) fried seafood on paper plates, hushpuppies and slaw and cold beer. the plywood walls are covered with the graffiti of visitors, the kind of place that you bring your kids or a group of friends and stay for a while. I love these undesigned places, ate my first oyster at just such a raw bar in the Florida panhandle and was sorry to see that it had gotten decorated and remade after hurricane George. Something in the organic rough and ready personality of these places appeals to me. It was recommended to me by Amy Evans, Oral Historian with the Southern Foodways Alliance. It was the perfect place to fulfill our yearly deep-fried fresh seafood and shuck your own oysters craving. It was also the perfect place to watch the sunset from the porch and then make a running leap into the car as soon as the sun went down- next time, bring bug spray!
SFA did a great little short documentary film on Bowens Island Restaurant: http://southernfoodways.org/documentary/film/bowens-island.html
Places I want to go next time-
Taxis are $6 flat rate on the Peninsula
There is a free shuttle bus marked “King/ Meeting” the 2 main shopping streets that I didn’t use, but would next time.
Bring bug spray to Bowens Island
Porch seating at Husk is first come if you don’t have a reservation.
I made a map of the places I mentioned in the post: